The Story of the Amulet by Edith Nesbit
Chapter 10. The Little Black Girl and Julius Caesar
A great city swept away by the sea, a beautiful country devastated by an active volcano--these are not the sort of things you see every day of the week. And when you do see them, no matter how many other wonders you may have seen in your time, such sights are rather apt to take your breath away. Atlantis had certainly this effect on the breaths of Cyril, Robert, Anthea, and Jane.
They remained in a breathless state for some days. The learned gentleman seemed as breathless as anyone; he spent a good deal of what little breath he had in telling Anthea about a wonderful dream he had. 'You would hardly believe,' he said, 'that anyone could have such a detailed vision.'
But Anthea could believe it, she said, quite easily.
He had ceased to talk about thought-transference. He had now seen too many wonders to believe that.
In consequence of their breathless condition none of the children suggested any new excursions through the Amulet. Robert voiced the mood of the others when he said that they were 'fed up' with Amulet for a bit. They undoubtedly were.
As for the Psammead, it went to sand and stayed there, worn out by the terror of the flood and the violent exercise it had had to take in obedience to the inconsiderate wishes of the learned gentleman and the Babylonian queen.
The children let it sleep. The danger of taking it about among strange people who might at any moment utter undesirable wishes was becoming more and more plain.
And there are pleasant things to be done in London without any aid from Amulets or Psammeads. You can, for instance visit the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, the National Gallery, the Zoological Gardens, the various Parks, the Museums at South Kensington, Madame Tussaud's Exhibition of Waxworks, or the Botanical Gardens at Kew. You can go to Kew by river steamer--and this is the way that the children would have gone if they had gone at all. Only they never did, because it was when they were discussing the arrangements for the journey, and what they should take with them to eat and how much of it, and what the whole thing would cost, that the adventure of the Little Black Girl began to happen.
The children were sitting on a seat in St James's Park. They had been watching the pelican repulsing with careful dignity the advances of the seagulls who are always so anxious to play games with it. The pelican thinks, very properly, that it hasn't the figure for games, so it spends most of its time pretending that that is not the reason why it won't play.
The breathlessness caused by Atlantis was wearing off a little. Cyril, who always wanted to understand all about everything, was turning things over in his mind.
'I'm not; I'm only thinking,' he answered when Robert asked him what he was so grumpy about. 'I'll tell you when I've thought it all out.'
'If it's about the Amulet I don't want to hear it,' said Jane.
'Nobody asked you to,' retorted Cyril mildly, 'and I haven't finished my inside thinking about it yet. Let's go to Kew in the meantime.'
'I'd rather go in a steamer,' said Robert; and the girls laughed.
'That's right,' said Cyril, 'be funny. I would.'
'Well, he was, rather,' said Anthea.
'I wouldn't think, Squirrel, if it hurts you so,' said Robert kindly.
'Oh, shut up,' said Cyril, 'or else talk about Kew.'
'I want to see the palms there,' said Anthea hastily, 'to see if they're anything like the ones on the island where we united the Cook and the Burglar by the Reverend Half-Curate.'
All disagreeableness was swept away in a pleasant tide of recollections, and 'Do you remember ...?' they said. 'Have you forgotten ...?'
'My hat!' remarked Cyril pensively, as the flood of reminiscence ebbed a little; 'we have had some times.'
'We have that,' said Robert.
'Don't let's have any more,' said Jane anxiously.
'That's what I was thinking about,' Cyril replied; and just then they heard the Little Black Girl sniff. She was quite close to them.
She was not really a little black girl. She was shabby and not very clean, and she had been crying so much that you could hardly see, through the narrow chink between her swollen lids, how very blue her eyes were. It was her dress that was black, and it was too big and too long for her, and she wore a speckled black-ribboned sailor hat that would have fitted a much bigger head than her little flaxen one. And she stood looking at the children and sniffing.
'Oh, dear!' said Anthea, jumping up. 'Whatever is the matter?'
She put her hand on the little girl's arm. It was rudely shaken off.
'You leave me be,' said the little girl. 'I ain't doing nothing to you.'
'But what is it?' Anthea asked. 'Has someone been hurting you?'
'What's that to you?' said the little girl fiercely. 'You're all right.'
'Come away,' said Robert, pulling at Anthea's sleeve. 'She's a nasty, rude little kid.'
'Oh, no,' said Anthea. 'She's only dreadfully unhappy. What is it?' she asked again.
'Oh, you're all right,' the child repeated; 'You ain't agoin' to the Union.'
'Can't we take you home?' said Anthea; and Jane added, 'Where does your mother live?'
'She don't live nowheres--she's dead--so now!' said the little girl fiercely, in tones of miserable triumph. Then she opened her swollen eyes widely, stamped her foot in fury, and ran away. She ran no further than to the next bench, flung herself down there and began to cry without even trying not to.
Anthea, quite at once, went to the little girl and put her arms as tight as she could round the hunched-up black figure.
'Oh, don't cry so, dear, don't, don't!' she whispered under the brim of the large sailor hat, now very crooked indeed. 'Tell Anthea all about it; Anthea'll help you. There, there, dear, don't cry.'
The others stood at a distance. One or two passers-by stared curiously.
The child was now only crying part of the time; the rest of the time she seemed to be talking to Anthea.
Presently Anthea beckoned Cyril.
'It's horrible!' she said in a furious whisper, 'her father was a carpenter and he was a steady man, and never touched a drop except on a Saturday, and he came up to London for work, and there wasn't any, and then he died; and her name is Imogen, and she's nine come next November. And now her mother's dead, and she's to stay tonight with Mrs Shrobsall--that's a landlady that's been kind--and tomorrow the Relieving Officer is coming for her, and she's going into the Union; that means the Workhouse. It's too terrible. What can we do?'
'Let's ask the learned gentleman,' said Jane brightly.
And as no one else could think of anything better the whole party walked back to Fitzroy Street as fast as it could, the little girl holding tight to Anthea's hand and now not crying any more, only sniffing gently.
The learned gentleman looked up from his writing with the smile that had grown much easier to him than it used to be. They were quite at home in his room now; it really seemed to welcome them. Even the mummy-case appeared to smile as if in its distant superior ancient Egyptian way it were rather pleased to see them than not.
Anthea sat on the stairs with Imogen, who was nine come next November, while the others went in and explained the difficulty.
The learned gentleman listened with grave attention.
'It really does seem rather rough luck,' Cyril concluded, 'because I've often heard about rich people who wanted children most awfully--though I know I never should--but they do. There must be somebody who'd be glad to have her.'
'Gipsies are awfully fond of children,' Robert hopefully said. 'They're always stealing them. Perhaps they'd have her.'
'She's quite a nice little girl really,' Jane added; 'she was only rude at first because we looked jolly and happy, and she wasn't. You understand that, don't you?'
'Yes,' said he, absently fingering a little blue image from Egypt. 'I understand that very well. As you say, there must be some home where she would be welcome.' He scowled thoughtfully at the little blue image.
Anthea outside thought the explanation was taking a very long time.
She was so busy trying to cheer and comfort the little black girl that she never noticed the Psammead who, roused from sleep by her voice, had shaken itself free of sand, and was coming crookedly up the stairs. It was close to her before she saw it. She picked it up and settled it in her lap.
'What is it?' asked the black child. 'Is it a cat or a organ-monkey, or what?'
And then Anthea heard the learned gentleman say--
'Yes, I wish we could find a home where they would be glad to have her,' and instantly she felt the Psammead begin to blow itself out as it sat on her lap.
She jumped up lifting the Psammead in her skirt, and holding Imogen by the hand, rushed into the learned gentleman's room.
'At least let's keep together,' she cried. 'All hold hands--quick!'
The circle was like that formed for the Mulberry Bush or Ring-o'-Roses. And Anthea was only able to take part in it by holding in her teeth the hem of her frock which, thus supported, formed a bag to hold the Psammead.
'Is it a game?' asked the learned gentleman feebly. No one answered.
There was a moment of suspense; then came that curious upside-down, inside-out sensation which one almost always feels when transported from one place to another by magic. Also there was that dizzy dimness of sight which comes on these occasions.
The mist cleared, the upside-down, inside-out sensation subsided, and there stood the six in a ring, as before, only their twelve feet, instead of standing on the carpet of the learned gentleman's room, stood on green grass. Above them, instead of the dusky ceiling of the Fitzroy Street floor, was a pale blue sky. And where the walls had been and the painted mummy-case, were tall dark green trees, oaks and ashes, and in between the trees and under them tangled bushes and creeping ivy. There were beech-trees too, but there was nothing under them but their own dead red drifted leaves, and here and there a delicate green fern-frond.
And there they stood in a circle still holding hands, as though they were playing Ring-o'-Roses or the Mulberry Bush. just six people hand in hand in a wood. That sounds simple, but then you must remember that they did not know where the wood was, and what's more, they didn't know when then wood was. There was a curious sort of feeling that made the learned gentleman say--
'Another dream, dear me!' and made the children almost certain that they were in a time a very long while ago. As for little Imogen, she said, 'Oh, my!' and kept her mouth very much open indeed.
'Where are we?' Cyril asked the Psammead.
'In Britain,' said the Psammead.
'But when?' asked Anthea anxiously.
'About the year fifty-five before the year you reckon time from,' said the Psammead crossly. 'Is there anything else you want to know?' it added, sticking its head out of the bag formed by Anthea's blue linen frock, and turning its snail's eyes to right and left. 'I've been here before--it's very little changed.' 'Yes, but why here?' asked Anthea.
'Your inconsiderate friend,' the Psammead replied, 'wished to find some home where they would be glad to have that unattractive and immature female human being whom you have picked up--gracious knows how. In Megatherium days properly brought-up children didn't talk to shabby strangers in parks. Your thoughtless friend wanted a place where someone would be glad to have this undesirable stranger. And now here you are!'
'I see we are,' said Anthea patiently, looking round on the tall gloom of the forest. 'But why here? Why now?'
'You don't suppose anyone would want a child like that in your times--in your towns?' said the Psammead in irritated tones. 'You've got your country into such a mess that there's no room for half your children--and no one to want them.'
'That's not our doing, you know,' said Anthea gently.
'And bringing me here without any waterproof or anything,' said the Psammead still more crossly, 'when everyone knows how damp and foggy Ancient Britain was.'
'Here, take my coat,' said Robert, taking it off. Anthea spread the coat on the ground and, putting the Psammead on it, folded it round so that only the eyes and furry ears showed.
'There,' she said comfortingly. 'Now if it does begin to look like rain, I can cover you up in a minute. Now what are we to do?'
The others who had stopped holding hands crowded round to hear the answer to this question. Imogen whispered in an awed tone--
'Can't the organ monkey talk neither! I thought it was only parrots!'
'Do?' replied the Psammead. 'I don't care what you do!' And it drew head and ears into the tweed covering of Robert's coat.
The others looked at each other.
'It's only a dream,' said the learned gentleman hopefully; 'something is sure to happen if we can prevent ourselves from waking up.'
And sure enough, something did.
The brooding silence of the dark forest was broken by the laughter of children and the sound of voices.
'Let's go and see,' said Cyril.
'It's only a dream,' said the learned gentleman to Jane, who hung back; 'if you don't go with the tide of a dream--if you resist--you wake up, you know.'
There was a sort of break in the undergrowth that was like a silly person's idea of a path. They went along this in Indian file, the learned gentleman leading.
Quite soon they came to a large clearing in the forest. There were a number of houses--huts perhaps you would have called them--with a sort of mud and wood fence.
'It's like the old Egyptian town,' whispered Anthea.
And it was, rather.
Some children, with no clothes on at all, were playing what looked like Ring-o'-Roses or Mulberry Bush. That is to say, they were dancing round in a ring, holding hands. On a grassy bank several women, dressed in blue and white robes and tunics of beast-skins sat watching the playing children.
The children from Fitzroy Street stood on the fringe of the forest looking at the games. One woman with long, fair braided hair sat a little apart from the others, and there was a look in her eyes as she followed the play of the children that made Anthea feel sad and sorry.
'None of those little girls is her own little girl,' thought Anthea.
The little black-clad London child pulled at Anthea's sleeve.
'Look,' she said, 'that one there--she's precious like mother; mother's 'air was somethink lovely, when she 'ad time to comb it out. Mother wouldn't never a-beat me if she'd lived 'ere--I don't suppose there's e'er a public nearer than Epping, do you, Miss?'
In her eagerness the child had stepped out of the shelter of the forest. The sad-eyed woman saw her. She stood up, her thin face lighted up with a radiance like sunrise, her long, lean arms stretched towards the London child.
'Imogen!' she cried--at least the word was more like that than any other word--'Imogen!'
There was a moment of great silence; the naked children paused in their play, the women on the bank stared anxiously.
'Oh, it is mother--it is!' cried Imogen-from-London, and rushed across the cleared space. She and her mother clung together--so closely, so strongly that they stood an instant like a statue carved in stone.
Then the women crowded round. 'It is my Imogen!' cried the woman.
'Oh it is! And she wasn't eaten by wolves. She's come back to me. Tell me, my darling, how did you escape? Where have you been? Who has fed and clothed you?'
'I don't know nothink,' said Imogen.
'Poor child!' whispered the women who crowded round, 'the terror of the wolves has turned her brain.'
'But you know me?' said the fair-haired woman.
And Imogen, clinging with black-clothed arms to the bare neck, answered--
'Oh, yes, mother, I know you right 'nough.'
'What is it? What do they say?' the learned gentleman asked anxiously.
'You wished to come where someone wanted the child,' said the Psammead. 'The child says this is her mother.'
'And the mother?'
'You can see,' said the Psammead.
'But is she really? Her child, I mean?'
'Who knows?' said the Psammead; 'but each one fills the empty place in the other's heart. It is enough.'
'Oh,' said the learned gentleman, 'this is a good dream. I wish the child might stay in the dream.'
The Psammead blew itself out and granted the wish. So Imogen's future was assured. She had found someone to want her.
'If only all the children that no one wants,' began the learned gentleman--but the woman interrupted. She came towards them.
'Welcome, all!' she cried. 'I am the Queen, and my child tells me that you have befriended her; and this I well believe, looking on your faces. Your garb is strange, but faces I can read. The child is bewitched, I see that well, but in this she speaks truth. Is it not so?'
The children said it wasn't worth mentioning.
I wish you could have seen all the honours and kindnesses lavished on the children and the learned gentleman by those ancient Britons.
You would have thought, to see them, that a child was something to make a fuss about, not a bit of rubbish to be hustled about the streets and hidden away in the Workhouse. It wasn't as grand as the entertainment at Babylon, but somehow it was more satisfying.
'I think you children have some wonderful influence on me,' said the learned gentleman. 'I never dreamed such dreams before I knew you.'
It was when they were alone that night under the stars where the Britons had spread a heap Of dried fern for them to sleep on, that Cyril spoke.
'Well,' he said, 'we've made it all right for Imogen, and had a jolly good time. I vote we get home again before the fighting begins.'
'What fighting?' asked Jane sleepily.
'Why, Julius Caesar, you little goat,' replied her kind brother. 'Don't you see that if this is the year fifty-five, Julius Caesar may happen at any moment.'
'I thought you liked Caesar,' said Robert.
'So I do--in the history. But that's different from being killed by his soldiers.'
'If we saw Caesar we might persuade him not to,' said Anthea.
'You persuade Caesar,' Robert laughed.
The learned gentleman, before anyone could stop him, said, 'I only wish we could see Caesar some time.'
And, of course, in just the little time the Psammead took to blow itself out for wish-giving, the five, or six counting the Psammead, found themselves in Caesar's camp, just outside Caesar's tent. And they saw Caesar. The Psammead must have taken advantage of the loose wording of the learned gentleman's wish, for it was not the same time of day as that on which the wish had been uttered among the dried ferns. It was sunset, and the great man sat on a chair outside his tent gazing over the sea towards Britain--everyone knew without being told that it was towards Britain. Two golden eagles on the top of posts stood on each side of the tent, and on the flaps of the tent which was very gorgeous to look at were the letters S.P.Q.R.
The great man turned unchanged on the newcomers the august glance that he had turned on the violet waters of the Channel. Though they had suddenly appeared out of nothing, Caesar never showed by the faintest movement of an eyelid, by the least tightening of that firm mouth, that they were not some long expected embassy. He waved a calm hand towards the sentinels, who sprang weapons in hand towards the newcomers.
'Back!' he said in a voice that thrilled like music. 'Since when has Caesar feared children and students?'
To the children he seemed to speak in the only language they knew; but the learned gentleman heard--in rather a strange accent, but quite intelligibly--the lips of Caesar speaking in the Latin tongue, and in that tongue, a little stiffly, he answered--
'It is a dream, O Caesar.'
'A dream?' repeated Caesar. 'What is a dream?'
'This,' said the learned gentleman.
'Not it,' said Cyril, 'it's a sort of magic. We come out of another time and another place.'
'And we want to ask you not to trouble about conquering Britain,' said Anthea; 'it's a poor little place, not worth bothering about.'
'Are you from Britain?' the General asked. 'Your clothes are uncouth, but well woven, and your hair is short as the hair of Roman citizens, not long like the hair of barbarians, yet such I deem you to be.' 'We're not,' said Jane with angry eagerness; 'we're not barbarians at all. We come from the country where the sun never sets, and we've read about you in books; and our country's full of fine things--St Paul's, and the Tower of London, and Madame Tussaud's Exhibition, and--' Then the others stopped her.
'Don't talk nonsense,' said Robert in a bitter undertone.
Caesar looked at the children a moment in silence. Then he called a soldier and spoke with him apart. Then he said aloud--
'You three elder children may go where you will within the camp. Few children are privileged to see the camp of Caesar. The student and the smaller girl-child will remain here with me.'
Nobody liked this; but when Caesar said a thing that thing was so, and there was an end to it. So the three went.
Left alone with Jane and the learned gentleman, the great Roman found it easy enough to turn them inside out. But it was not easy, even for him, to make head or tail of the insides of their minds when he had got at them.
The learned gentleman insisted that the whole thing was a dream, and refused to talk much, on the ground that if he did he would wake up.
Jane, closely questioned, was full of information about railways, electric lights, balloons, men-of-war, cannons, and dynamite.
'And do they fight with swords?' asked the General.
'Yes, swords and guns and cannons.'
Caesar wanted to know what guns were.
'You fire them,' said Jane, 'and they go bang, and people fall down dead.'
'But what are guns like?'
Jane found them hard to describe.
'But Robert has a toy one in his pocket,' she said. So the others were recalled.
The boys explained the pistol to Caesar very fully, and he looked at it with the greatest interest. It was a two-shilling pistol, the one that had done such good service in the old Egyptian village.
'I shall cause guns to be made,' said Caesar, 'and you will be detained till I know whether you have spoken the truth. I had just decided that Britain was not worth the bother of invading. But what you tell me decides me that it is very much worth while.'
'But it's all nonsense,' said Anthea. 'Britain is just a savage sort of island--all fogs and trees and big rivers. But the people are kind. We know a little girl there named Imogen. And it's no use your making guns because you can't fire them without gunpowder, and that won't be invented for hundreds of years, and we don't know how to make it, and we can't tell you. Do go straight home, dear Caesar, and let poor little Britain alone.'
'But this other girl-child says--' said Caesar.
'All Jane's been telling you is what it's going to be,' Anthea interrupted, 'hundreds and hundreds of years from now.'
'The little one is a prophetess, eh?' said Caesar, with a whimsical look. 'Rather young for the business, isn't she?'
'You can call her a prophetess if you like,' said Cyril, 'but what Anthea says is true.'
'Anthea?' said Caesar. 'That's a Greek name.'
'Very likely,' said Cyril, worriedly. 'I say, I do wish you'd give up this idea of conquering Britain. It's not worth while, really it isn't!'
'On the contrary,' said Caesar, 'what you've told me has decided me to go, if it's only to find out what Britain is really like. Guards, detain these children.'
'Quick,' said Robert, 'before the guards begin detaining. We had enough of that in Babylon.'
Jane held up the Amulet away from the sunset, and said the word. The learned gentleman was pushed through and the others more quickly than ever before passed through the arch back into their own times and the quiet dusty sitting-room of the learned gentleman.
It is a curious fact that when Caesar was encamped on the coast of Gaul--somewhere near Boulogne it was, I believe--he was sitting before his tent in the glow of the sunset, looking out over the violet waters of the English Channel. Suddenly he started, rubbed his eyes, and called his secretary. The young man came quickly from within the tent.
'Marcus,' said Caesar. 'I have dreamed a very wonderful dream. Some of it I forget, but I remember enough to decide what was not before determined. Tomorrow the ships that have been brought round from the Ligeris shall be provisioned. We shall sail for this three-cornered island. First, we will take but two legions.
This, if what we have heard be true, should suffice. But if my dream be true, then a hundred legions will not suffice. For the dream I dreamed was the most wonderful that ever tormented the brain even of Caesar. And Caesar has dreamed some strange things in his time.'
'And if you hadn't told Caesar all that about how things are now, he'd never have invaded Britain,' said Robert to Jane as they sat down to tea.
'Oh, nonsense,' said Anthea, pouring out; 'it was all settled hundreds of years ago.'
'I don't know,' said Cyril. 'Jam, please. This about time being only a thingummy of thought is very confusIng. If everything happens at the same time--'
'It can't!' said Anthea stoutly, 'the present's the present and the past's the past.'
'Not always,' said Cyril.
'When we were in the Past the present was the future. Now then!' he added triumphantly.
And Anthea could not deny it.
'I should have liked to see more of the camp,' said Robert.
'Yes, we didn't get much for our money--but Imogen is happy, that's one thing,' said Anthea. 'We left her happy in the Past. I've often seen about people being happy in the Past, in poetry books. I see what it means now.'
'It's not a bad idea,' said the Psammead sleepily, putting its head out of its bag and taking it in again suddenly, 'being left in the Past.'
Everyone remembered this afterwards, when--